Hearing that the flood waters are receding before they have reached your road, is quite different news from the warning that the water level is rising around you.
Receiving the latest electricity bill is quite different from finding out that you are going to be a grand parent for the first time.
What kind of news would make you celebrate wildly, without inhibition? Perhaps it would be the news that someone who had been sick was getting better and would soon be home. Or that you had been invited to take on a new position of responsibility in an organisation that you had been involved in, or perhaps the even better news that you are going to be allowed to retire! Our neighbours in the Parish of Raymond Terrace are celebrating today the birth of the latest addition to the Rectory household, because Rachel Yates, the wife of Father Chris gave birth to a beautiful baby girl on Friday evening. That is the kind of news that is worth celebrating. News that is so momentous that it makes people do things that they would not normally do.
We might dance round and round the living room if no one else is watching. We might telephone everyone we could think of and invite them to a party. We might shout and throw our hat in the air, before heading for the nearest bottle of champagne. We might sing a song, or even make one up as we go along – probably making use of snatches of poems and songs we already know, or perhaps by adding our own words to a great old hymn. And if we lived in any kind of a culture where rhythm and beat mattered, it would be the sort of song that we could clap our hands to, or stamp our feet along with on the ground.
On this last weekend in our Advent journey, it is that kind of singing, dancing and celebrating that we should have in our minds as we reflect upon the ‘Magnificat’, Mary’s song, which we read together as the canticle, in place of our psalm, and which we heard within its context in the Gospel narrative a few moments ago.
The canticle ‘Magnificat’ (named after its first word in Latin) is truly one of the most famous songs in Christianity. It has been whispered in monasteries, chanted in cathedrals, recited in small remote churches by evening candlelight and set to music with trumpets and orchestra by some of the most talented composers that have lived. But if we have in our minds the St Peter’s Choir singing this Canticle in beautiful but reserved Anglican chant (and I mean this in the nicest possible way) then we have missed the roller-coaster, passionate excitement of it all. Because Mary’s song – the Magnificat – is a song of unprecedented and unscripted emotion and hope and joy. “My Soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God my saviour,” Mary sings, with her voice and her whole body.
It is true to say that some Anglicans are rather nervous about the person of Mary, and have been a little puzzled about her place in our tradition and piety: and they are in good company because Mary has been treated with ambiguity by some Anglicans right the way back to the Reformation. Some Anglicans are happier to see her on Christmas cards, and indeed in stained-glass windows, where she finds a place at the East End of our own Church than they are to see her in an icon or a statue. And the key, I think, to our approach to Mary should be this: if we find ourselves looking at Mary, and not being pointed by her life to Jesus, then we have misunderstood her place in the pilgrimage of salvation. If we find ourselves never looking to her then we have missed something as well. Because Mary always points to her Son.
Even in our Gospel reading today, in this great hymn of joy that she sings to God – thirty weeks before the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem, thirty year before he begins his public ministry, Mary anticipates the Gospel, the good news, which Jesus will bring.
We might call this canticle, (Mary’s Gospel), “the Gospel before the Gospel has arrived”. It points not to Mary but to God himself. It is all because of Jesus, even though he has only just been conceived (not yet born) and yet has made Elisabeth’s baby John leap for joy in her womb, and has made Mary giddy with excitement and hope. So it is no surprise at all that Mary, in her song, anticipates much of what Jesus’ ministry will be all about.
The ancient dream of the People of Israel, long-anticipated by the Prophets, will come to fulfillment in God’s Son, in Mary’s Son. At last all of the hopes of mercy, peace, fulfillment, reconciliation with God the Creator of the Universe, victory over evil for all time, will come to fruition in the Son that Mary bears. But despite the joy of Mary’s song, the reality is that she will have to wait.
In our Gospel reading Mary and Elisabeth rejoice together, as they look forward in hope, but they will need to be patient. Neither Jesus nor John have yet been born to them, and after their birth these two boys will need to grow into the full stature and understanding of their calling: there are many years of waiting ahead. Mary sings a song of praise at the start of her pregnancy, but for the months ahead God’s presence in the world will rest in her as this little foetus grows inside her body. It will not be obvious that this unborn child is the very Word of God. Mary will not walk around with a halo or a strange but holy glow. The promises which Mary sings about are yet to be fully fulfilled.
In our cycle of remembering this is all going to be fast-tracked very quickly. Mary celebrates the conception of Jesus today, and on Monday and Tuesday we will celebrate his birth, but that was not how it was for her. As she goes about all of the normal activities of her daily life, no one will know what God has in store for them through the unborn child that she carries. As we look today at Mary, she points us to Jesus, and calls us to be patient. Mary sings of all of the promises of God that will be fulfilled through her Son, just as the Prophets looked eagerly for them long before. But she will have to wait not only thirty more weeks before he is born, but thirty more years before he begins his public ministry.
And Christians who were born after the time of Jesus down through the ages, and including you and me, have had to live in that reality of waiting as well. We rejoice that Jesus has come amongst us, has died and has risen, and that we now live in the presence and with the wisdom of his Holy Spirit. We celebrate that the Kingdom of God has been inaugurated – and this Church stands as a beacon of the promises of that Kingdom – and yet we also actively wait for the promises of God to be finally and completely fulfilled. We live in the in-between times. The Kingdom is here, but it is not fully here. In the words of the Lord’s Prayer that we shall say together again in this liturgy, we continue to ask God for his Kingdom to come here on earth as it is already in heaven.
As I have been saying over the last few Sundays, Advent is the season of the Christian year when we stop to reflect on the fact that we are called to live creatively in this time of waiting, before all things will be gathered up into the loving presence of our Creator, in a way that we cannot possibly imagine or understand. We have not simply been waiting for Christmas. In this Season of Advent we have joined ourselves with all those who have gone before us who have awaited the fulfilment of the promises of God. Both those who came before Jesus, and those who have followed afterwards.
On the first weekend of Advent we reflected on how we mark out the seasons of the Christian year in our lives as we wait for God’s Kingdom to be fully revealed. On the second weekend of Advent we thought about how we order our time to consciously be aware that time is God’s and not our own. Last weekend we began to think about how Christian liturgy was developed to help to order and give focus to our Christian living.
Today, in this last weekend of Advent, we remember Mary, the God-bearer, who rejoiced at all that was to come, but had to continue to live patiently through the pregnancy of Jesus and as he grew into a man. We have seen a vision of peace, justice, restored relationship with God, and all that Jesus promised, but we wait for it to be fully a reality around us. It is both here now, and not yet fully here now. Well, of course this waiting will not end on Monday and Tuesday when we celebrate together the birth of Jesus, it will continue to be a central underlying reality in our Christian living throughout all of the seasons of the year ahead of us, it just won’t be the focus of our attention in quite the same way as it has been over the last few weeks.
We are called to be patient. We are also called like Mary to be actively faithful. Like Mary we are invited as a Church to sing with hope and to anticipate all that God in Jesus has in store for us and will do amongst us in the days, and weeks and months and years ahead. Mary says, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my saviour.” As we look to Mary today, in our Gospel reading and in our Advent Wreath prayers, she points us to Jesus, and calls us to be patient and alert as we wait to see and experience his work amongst us. One of my brothers in the Brotherhood of St Gregory, Br Karekin Madteos Yarian BSG, expresses it helpfully like this:
Be patient. Be patient.
Don’t be in such a hurry.
When you are impatient it only makes you worry.
that God is patient too.
Think of all the times that he has had to wait for you.